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El albergue

El albergue

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hay que pensar.....

I don’t want to be one of those tourists who goes city shopping, who travels around with a camera glued to their eye, who frantically tries to lengthen the list of places visited just so they can say they’ve been somewhere and have the photos to prove it.  They try to add a cosmopolitan air to the image that their friends back home have of them, giving themselves an added edge of importance in the eyes of their social circle.  But why travel to foreign countries and spend all that money if you’re only going to spend all your time behind your camera or thinking about how much this particular trip will give you to brag about to your buddies?  Why not just buy some pictures of the place, read up on it, and regale your friends with the marvelous information that you’ve learned?  Is that any more ridiculous than just passing through and checking off one more place on your list of super duper travels? 

I don’t want to be one of those tourists.  I want to be one who thinks about what I see.  After all, why is it so important that I see it?  What is it about this particular site that draws me to itself?  Is it just because everyone else in the world has seen it?  Am I just trying to fill out my checklist of famous monuments and scenes?  Or am I actually thinking about what I see in front of me, about the construction of an edifice that took decades to finish, the meticulous care that went into a painting, the immense complexity of an landscape that God’s hand spread out for all eyes to see and wonder at?  Am I thinking about everything that has happened in this place, the people who have come through in various stages of life and history?  Because that’s what I want to do.  I want to be cogent of everything this site entails.  I want to stop completely in my journey, sit down, and think about what I’m looking at and experiencing. 

In some places, like Segovia, where Marisol and I were last Friday, the history can be overwhelming if you really stop to think about what the town has been through.  And yet it makes seeing the Roman aqueduct so much more incredible when you imagine the ancient crews of workmen cutting huge blocks of stone just so and hauling them by cart over untamed terrain to the building site, where they fit together each perfectly made piece in slender arches and columns that tower above the countryside, all without the use of modern machines, or even mortar for that matter.  Today, the stones are rounded, softened by close to two millennia of existence, but they still fit so precisely together that they look as though they will remain in their perfectly engineered state of balance for yet another two thousand years.  How many gallons of water has this structure moved across the land?  How many acres of land did it water, giving life and moisture where there was not enough?  How long did it take the Romans to build the entire length, of which the part in Segovia is but a small section?  How many people were involved in the building of it?  What was it like to build it?  How many millions of pairs of eyes have seen it?  How many millions of pairs of feet have walked in its shadow?  How many millions of pairs of hands have touched the rough surface of the stone, feeling the solidity of the pillars?  What were their names?  What did they wear?  Were they boisterous and noisy like the groups of schoolchildren that flock the stairs going up and down the wall nearby?  Did they sit in peace on the small stretch of grass and contemplate this ancient masterpiece?  Did they look at it only through the lens of their camera?  Did they quietly sketch the perfectly engineered symmetry as the sun shone through the curving arches? 

It’s intriguing to think about what the town’s main square, the Plaza Mayor, has been through too, from the declaration of Isabel as queen over Castile y León (yes, this would be the Isabel who unified all of Spain by marring Ferdinand of Aragon and who later sent Columbus off on his journey to find the Indies), to the present day swarm of tourists coming to eat in cafes or view the monolithic cathedral with its myriad gothic spires.  There’s the stamp of feet and squirl of oboes and snare drums as a parade of townsfolk in traditional dress and bearing fresh produce circle around the Plaza on their way to offer thanks for the harvest in the cathedral.  There’s the flocks of pigeons that circle overhead, alighting on one cathedral spire just to take off in a scattered swirl and re-condense on another.  There’s the one-legged beggar outside the cathedral door.  There’s the old woman hawking beautiful hand-embroidered shawls.  How many stories could these stones tell?  How many conversations have they heard?  How many events have they seen take place?

And the rest of the city?  It used to be the hub of a kingdom.  It still boasts of its Alcázar, the beautiful castle that once housed royalty and later the royal academy of artillery before being opened to the public view.  But it has been centuries since this town has seen the hustle and bustle attendant on royal life.  And yet it is still full of vitality, the intricate decorative patterns on the walls of nearly every building echoing back the tramp of feet and the happy shout of laughter, the narrow streets channeling streams of humanity through the network of calles and plazas at a slow yet steady pace.  

And so I think.  I imagine.  I look at relics of the past and ponder what they once were, what they once saw.  I don’t want to run by in search of the next thing to check off my list and miss everything that what I have in front of me has to offer.  There’s a certain richness behind everything that I want to find, that I want to taste of.  Because it’s true, hay que pensar.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Today is Monday


Mondays.  Garfield always hated Mondays.  Now, why in the world did he hate Mondays?  He didn’t actually do anything over the weekend or have to go to work or school on Monday morning.  It’s not like he had to wake up at 7:30 in order to catch the bus at 8:30 in order to make the train at 8:45 in order to make it to class with just enough time to settle into the desk before the professor started at 9:30.  Some of you may think that this might be me complaining about my morning schedule….and it sort of is, but in all reality I don’t really have a whole lot to complain about.  After all, I am in a foreign country, getting to experience all sorts of things that I wouldn’t back home in California.  So I have to get up at 7:30 every school day.  At least I only have class four days a week.  So it takes me a little less than an hour to make it from my front door to my classroom desk.  At least I usually get to read a left-behind paper on the train (or let the gentle rocking motion lull me into a sleepy stupor, but that doesn’t sound quite as nice and studious, now does it?).  Also, starting early usually means that I get to end my days fairly early too.  At least I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Wednesdays aren’t quite as nice.  And as for Mondays……well, on Mondays I don’t get home until after 8 pm. 

After Professional Spanish is over at 5:30, Marisol and I walk over to History of Spain, usually late since there isn’t a cushioning passing period at all.  Our History Professor tends to start a few minutes late though, so we slip in while the class is still settling down and get out our notebooks while he clears his throat and organizes his thoughts and papers.  It’s really a pretty interesting class – no dusty dates delivered in the monotonous voice of an equally dusty old professor tottering around the front of the room.  No, our professor is fairly young, with a strong voice that tends to reverberate a little around the smooth, boxy classroom.  Admittedly, said echoes kind of confuse the clarity of his speech at times, but most of the little pearls of historical wisdom that fall from his lips are eagerly snatched up by us, his ready students.  Or maybe they would be if it wasn’t so durn late in the day and half the class wasn’t thinking about what they were going to eat for dinner.  At 7 we’re finally done with class for the day.  We join the stream of people heading back to the train station.  The platform fills, knots forming here and there with different languages floating out from each one. 

Normally, the train comes through every ten minutes or so, but today for some reason it tarried a little while somewhere up the tracks, so by the time it got there, the people in my group had had plenty of time to enumerate all the different hunger pains they were experiencing, comparing levels of hunger and amounts of food eaten already during the day.  “I’m so hungry!”  “I’m about ready to die of hunger!”  “I haven’t eaten a bite since lunch at 1!”  (Since 1?!  That ain’t nothin’!  I haven’t eaten anything since….oh yeah, that’s right, I ate lunch at 2…..)  On the train ride back, I sat with two guys from my History class, and we talked about various things, things like the benefit of practicing a musical instrument…..and food.  Yes we talked about food.  Glorious food.  There’s so much to talk about when food is involved – meal times, favorite meal, favorite food, cooking vs. being served, food missed the most, food habits.  Truly, foods can be an inexhaustible source of conversation, especially when you’re hungry.

When Marisol and I got home a bit after 8, our host mom wasn’t home yet, so we split off to our separate rooms to check emails or putz around until she came back and dinner was served.  Not too long after we got home, we heard the jingle of Maria’s keys in the door (yay!).  She hurried in, asked us if we were hungry, and then preceded to run around the house: Take off the coat.  Put the groceries in the kitchen.  Turn on the burner to warm up the lentils her sister-in-law had given her.  Fill the frying pan with olive oil and turn on the burner to get it hot.  Turn on the oven to heat up the bread.  Scurry away to answer the telephone.  Get out the silverware.  The lentils are hot so take them off the burner before they burn.  The oil is hot, so start frying the empanadillas.  (I tried to help a little getting the table set, but there is only so much one can do to help in such a small kitchen when the cook is all over the place, here one second and there the next.)  Serve up the lentils.  The empanadillas are almost done.  Oop!  There goes the phone again.  Quick!  Get the bread out before it gets too toasty!  Careful, it’s hot!  The empanadillas are done, so put them on a plate and get them on the table. (Maria told us that after something heavy like lentils one can only eat something light like empanadillas, but if fried dough filled with cheese is ever light, you can call me a turkey and eat me for Thanksgiving dinner)  Now slice the melon and serve it up for dessert before grabbing the coat and running back out the door to finish up one last errand for the day.

Marisol and I finished up and put our plates in the sink, lucky that she hadn’t had time to make us salad or do more than remind us of the other desserts that were in the fridge.  She’s a marvelous cook (yesterday she made us a paella that was exquisite), but she sure tries to pack it into us!  It’s kind of fun coming home from class each day and seeing what she has on the stove for dinner.  Makes getting up early ok, because I have that much more time to look forward to dinner.  Well, I guess I could still enjoy dinner just as much if I got to sleep in a little longer, but since I do have to get up at 7:30, I might as well make up as many excuses as I can to convince myself that I like it, right?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The transplant


It doesn’t quite fit.  It’s not quite natural.  It’s obviously not an original part of the face of the city.  And yet it seems to have settled in quite nicely.  It seems to be becoming part of the general aura of the place, to be peacefully fitting itself to the niche it has been given.  “It” is the Temple of Debod; the city, Madrid. 

The Temple of Debod is an ancient Egyptian artifact and a relatively new inhabitant of the Spanish capital.  It was gifted in the late 60s as a thank-you for some sort of support that Spain lent Egypt in the archeological/conservational arena, and installed in a beautiful little park just north of El Palacio Real.  Now it sits at the peak of a hill, with the lights of the city sparkling beneath it at night, and the trees of the park respectfully retreating into the pathways and grass that grace the hillsides. 

It was beautiful last night when I went walking through with a friend.  Laid out east to west, the temple was perfectly lit up, its reflection shimmering on the water of the pool that surrounds it.  We admired the nighttime effect, listening to the calm sound of the fountain at the far end and taking in the softening drape of shadows on the edges and corners of ancient stone.  It was peaceful, lovely. 

I’ve heard that it’s absolutely THE best spot to see the sunset in Madrid.  And during the day, the main part is open for viewing – you get to go inside!  Of course, this means that I’ll have to go back at least twice, once during the day and once during sunset, but I don’t think that’ll be much of a hardship.  After all, who can complain about having to see a beautiful sight more than once?

Friday, September 17, 2010

In the House of Kings


I threw up last night.  I think it was the combination of too much heavy food too soon before I went to bed.  That’s what I get for eating dinner at 9 o’clock at night.  But I didn’t really care.  You know why?  Because I was super excited for what Marisol and I had planned for today – El Palacio Real!   Who wouldn’t be excited to spend the day wandering around a huge, lavish building built for kings, even if only a relatively small part of it is open to the public?  We even got up early  (…9 am…) in order to spend as much time as we could being tourists. 

After finally figuring out some weird conjunction of metro stations, we made it, and since the threatening skies weren’t pouring forth rain, we decided to take advantage of the moment and walk through the Jardines de Sabatini right behind the palace.  The name Sabatini came up fairly regularly when we were actually inside, so I think he must have been one of the favorite designers/decorators of one of the kings.  However that may be, the garden, although nothing in comparison with El Retiro, was charmingly laid out with mazes of low shrubs spreading out from an elegant pool with splashing fountains and statues of various regal figures.  The weather seemed uncertain though, so we made our way around to the front of the palace to buy our tickets. (Lucky us, we only had to pay less than half the normal price because we brought our student IDs!) 

The first thing you see after buying your ticket and passing through the souvenir shop is the courtyard.  And it’s huge.  An expanse of paving stones marked intermittently by sophisticated black and gold lampposts.  Behind is the huge iron fence with gilt spearheads and filigree.  On either side are two wings hidden behind arch-topped colonnades.  In themselves, they would be impressive, but they are far overshadowed by the main building in front.  It towers overhead, rows of ornate windows, columns, and arches leading up to the beautifully decorated peak.  It’s completely made of stone, completing the heavy feel of majestic grandeur (the original building burned down in the 1700s, so they rebuilt in stone to avoid running into the same problem again).  It’s quite easy to imagine carriages sweeping up to the staircase of the main entrance, ladies in rich ball gowns being handed down by men in fancy suits, liveried servants running hither and thither to complete the tasks given them by the high and mighty.  Since 1931, the royal family has not actually lived in the palace, although it is still used for official functions and celebrations, but imagine the amount of people that used to run about the place, swarming like bees around their hive.  I think I heard one tour guide say that all told, there used to be about 6 thousand in the palace, give or take a few.  Of course, the crowd probably looked a little different in the early 1900s than it did in the mid 1700s, but the numbers are still huge. 

Inside, everything we saw was, needless to say, sumptuous.  The throne room was nearly covered with red velvet, and filled with untold statues and paintings.  One salon had an exquisite marble floor that was laid out in an incredible floral design and unbelievable hand-embroidered wall cloth (what in the world do you call cloth that is used as wall paper???).  Another was completely covered in a pristine porcelain fresco made in the porcelain factory that used to be in El Retiro.  A third was decorated in bright Chinese porcelain tiles depicting all sorts of animals.  A fourth housed five Stradivarius masterpieces, each worth 3 million euros and still in use today for ceremonial events and such (if not used and maintained, they would lose their legendary tone and quality).  The dining room was huge and magnificent, with 15 chandeliers and a seating capacity of around 140 people.  Nearly every room was lit by ponderous chandeliers that hung suspended from the ceiling by chains beautifully dressed in damask, velvet, or whatever other rich material was used elsewhere in the room.  The armory housed an amazing array of royal armor, most of it so ornate that it’s doubtful it was ever used in battle.  Some of the details made artistic masterpieces out of shields and helmets, swords and early handguns.  Really, I could have stood for over an hour in front of any one of a number of them, and there were hundreds! 

There was so much detail everywhere that I find myself at a loss for words in trying to describe it all.  How can one give a complete picture of something so incredibly and overwhelmingly detailed?  There are of course the adjectives I have been using so far: majestic, regal, amazing, awesome, impressive, weighty, charming, elegant, rich, ornate, exquisite, etc.  But these words are all simple nebulous ideas, tools to create a fuzzy mental picture, something more impression and hypothesis than real and tangible.  So although El Palacio Real is huge, and we spent a good few hours in it, I can think of nothing more to really say.  It is what it is.  We came, we saw, we admired, we filled our eyes with beauty and our minds with memories, and we left. 

So now as I sit here at my little desk, the rooms parade before my mind’s eye (as the old man in his study across from my window can’t seem to get his throat quite well enough cleared), and I can see the gold, the porcelain, the silver, the marble, the paintings, the tapestries, the armor, the furniture, the sculptures, and the inlaid wood.  I laugh at one luckless monitor trying to keep people from taking pictures, turning to the raised camera on one side only to turn around at the flash of someone else who has just come in.  I hear the words of the tour guide whose group I got not unwillingly stuck in while in one particularly narrow passageway.  I remember emotions, thoughts, impressions.  Now perhaps, I will take these remembrances with me on an evening walk through El Retiro, thinking things over and storing it away in my brain for future reference.  Or maybe I’ll just watch the mobs of people that descend on the park every weekend evening.  Or even just walk to expedite the digestive process so that my body doesn’t reject its dinner again tonight when I go to bed.  Maybe by the time I get back the old man across the way will have finally gotten his throat cleared.

Monday, September 13, 2010

La Noche en Blanco becomes a day in Toledo


Those of you who know Picnic Day at Davis, think about what all it entails.  You have the picture in your mind?  Now take that and multiply it by about a bazillion times, then translate it from all day to all night.  That’s kind of what Noche en Blanco in Madrid is like.  (Those of you who don’t have Davis’ awesome Picnic Day as a point of reference, try imagining the largest city-wide gathering you’ve ever been to)  The streets in downtown are completely filled with people; there aren’t any cars to be seen, although sometimes some crazy person tries to wind their way through the mob on bike.  There’s a program with different events, concerts, and expos lined out in nice order for thousands upon thousands of people to choose from, most of it starting around 9 and ending around 2, with some areas stretching out the revelry until 5.  The main goal of this event is to bring the average citizens into closer contact with all the arts and whatnot that the city has to offer, to build a sort of solidarity within the community, and if the turnout I saw on Saturday night said anything at all, I think it said that the people where completely up for that sort of thing.

Marisol and I left the apartment around 11 and hopped on the Metro, which got really full as we got more into the heart of the festivities.  When we emerged from underground, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a sea of people.  On top of the throngs of young folk, there were old ones pacing along and families with small children and babies, a few of whom were fast asleep in strollers.  Needless to say, it was a bit of a task finding the girls we were going to hang out with, but it eventually happened.  The eight of us tried to go to an event in the Planetarium, but it was completely packed out, so we ended up talking with some Spanish guys that were friends with one of the girls before deciding to head over to Complutense (major university) because one of the girls had heard that there was a huge party thinga-ma-bobby going on there.  The only thing is….Complutense is a really long walk away from downtown, and the metro closed at 1:30.  So we walked.  A lot.  When we finally got to the party, we found ourselves once again the in middle of a seething ocean of humanity in a space roughly equal to a football field (I’m really not sure since it was night and all).  It was sort of like an outdoor Rave – think DJ, really loud music, crazy kids being crazy kids.  It was kind of strangely energizing to be in the middle of the crowd, the bass vibrating in your chest, trying not to lose track of the rest of the group, the occasional strobe light making everything look instantly way cooler.  There was one happenstance that kind of made me grin: That first night we stayed out until 6 we met two Spanish guys, and wouldn’t you believe it, they were dancing a couple of people away from us at this ginormous outdoor party in the middle of even more ginormous Madrid.  Not that we could talk very much, what with the music taking up pretty much all of the aural space, but it was fun anyways. 

By the time Marisol and I made it back to the apartment it was just about 6.  And we had to get up at 8:30 for a day trip to Toledo.  Yup, just over two hours of sleep.  I woke up feeling like I was drunk.  But we made it to our respective modes of transportation on time. (Marisol on the bus with the rest of the group organized by a club on campus, and me in a car with two other girls who, like me, hadn’t made it in time to buy a bus ticket)  The driver was a girl from Germany, so it was really fun talking Spanish with her, since she speaks it with rather a different accent than either Hilda (who made our group three) or me. 

Toledo is beautiful.  It almost feels fake; there are so many old stone buildings, fortified gates, towers, and stretches of city wall.  And yet it’s completely real….well, once you look past the plethora of tourist shops that line the streets of the historic section.  The three of us in the car got there a little before the bus did, so we went into a little museum to use the bathroom and ended up looking around for a while before heading out to meet the group.  I don’t know what the building used to house, but it had gorgeous wooden ceilings with a delicately intricate pattern in something like white stone coming down sides of the arches, providing a lovely background to some tapestries that were on display.  After meeting up with the rest of the group, we visited a museum that I think all you testosterone-fueled males would have liked – El Museo del Ejercito.  It has tons upon tons of exhibits showcasing the development of the army in the Iberian Peninsula through the ages, starting with weapons from the really ancient ancestors and ending with a display on Spain’s modern army.  We only had an hour to spend there, so we didn’t get to see everything, but we did get to spend a few minutes resting on the stairs of a beautiful courtyard inside.  Apparently, the museum is housed in the Alcazar, a massive building that was used for government purposes since the time of the Romans, and we got to see a bit of the regality of the place when we were in that quiet little courtyard. 

I ended up spending the rest of the day with a friend from our program, Diana.  We visited the tourist shops, then found our way to the cathedral.  That place is huge!  And really, really richly decorated.  We rested in there for a while, gazing around from a bench and trying to soak it in.  What a place to worship.  After that we went on a hike following the Rio Tajo as it curves around the city.  (The river used to form part of the natural fortifications of the city, protecting over half of the perimeter)  It was rather a warm day, and we sweated a fair amount, but it was lovely.  The scenery was idyllic, even if the drop down to the river from the path was a bit precipitous, and the sky and all of nature was putting forth its best face. 

We all met up at 6, then as the rest of the group got back on the bus to go back to Madrid, my carmates and I trekked out to our cute little green car (which was parked a ways away to avoid hefty parking fees), rolled down the windows, and hit the road.  As I took off my hat in the back seat to let the wind cool the sweat on my forehead and blow through my hair, my eyelids began to close.  I didn’t go to sleep though, not yet.  That waited until I went to bed later that evening, then I slept hard.  I guess you could say I was exhausted.  What with walking around the entire night and day with only two hours of sleep in the middle, my feet hurt and my body was more than ready to hit the sack.  It was really good though.  Night became morning and morphed into day, and it was good.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A culinary affair


I almost can’t believe that I’ve made this many posts and haven’t really talked about food yet.  How silly of me!  Good food is one of my staples for having a good time, and let me just say that I’ve been having plenty of good food.  First major culinary delight was the delicious paella Hilda and I ate in a cooking class at the hostel we stayed in while in Valencia.  A cook who’s life love is making paella (he apparently does it for a living) talked us through the steps of getting it ready, saying that including all the shopping and prepping, a good paella requires at least two days to get ready.  Of course, he usually makes enough for dozens of people in one pan, which would require more time, but I guess he should probably know what he’s talking about.  I don’t really remember the step-by-step instructions any more, but I doubt you would really be interested in something as dry as that, so instead I’ll just tell you some of the things that were in it.  There were three kinds of meat – chicken, rabbit, and duck – butter beans, green beans, and fried artichoke.  It’s simmered for about an hour with various kinds of spices (including saffron!) and rice, until it you end up with a sumptuously tender meal that smells like heaven.  It was fun having a multi-national conversation with two guys from Germany, one from England, and another from Italy during dinner, but the food was definitely the main attraction.

I had been told before I left the States that Spanish cooking included a lot of olive oil.  I didn’t realize though just how much oil that entailed until Marisol and I came home with Maria.  It’s really quite a lot of olive oil.  A lot.  The other day the cupboard was open and I saw that she had bought a gallon jug to replace the other gallon jug that was only half gone.  And there are only three of us in the flat.  That’s a lot of olive oil. 

Okay, so they use a lot of olive oil, quite a bit more than I’ve been used to, but the food is delicious.  Honestly, almost every single thing Maria has made I have really liked.  Sometimes it hasn’t looked quite like something I would like to eat, but it almost always is a complete success.  She uses canned peas in some of her dishes.  I grew up hearing my father say he hated canned peas.  But wouldn’t you know, they fit in perfectly with the rest of the food!  She puts a lot of meat in every dinner, a lot more than I’m used to eating.  And yet it’s always so good.  I usually come away from the table feeling, like one of my friends said the other day, as though my host mom was “stuffing me like a turkey,” but I don’t mind.  It’s delicious.  For example, she made some awesome chicken legs the other day – Marisol and I decided that they were probably one of the best things we have eaten yet since being in Madrid.  They were a bit messy, but so worth it!

I haven’t eaten out very much yet, and to be honest, I don’t think I really want to all that much because Maria’s food is so good.  Plus, she’s introducing us to all types of Spanish traditional cuisine, so I don’t want to miss out!  However, we did go out last night and try one madrileña tradition that one does have to go out to experience, chocolate con churros.  No joke, it’s heaven.  Marisol and I met up with two girlfriends in the Puerta del Sol around midnight, as the rest of the youth in Madrid were heading out to clubs, and we went to a restaurant/bar nearby to get some sangria.  We enjoyed our tasty drink as we sat outside on the “terraza,” which is basically just seating on the street, which, being small, was completely filled with tables and people.   Then around 1:30 we paid our bill and headed out to find a chocolateria that’s supposed to be famous so that we could taste of the delights of chocolate con churros (Maria was telling me that they just opened up an identical branch in Japan because the Japanese are going crazy over this stuff). 

We spent about an hour in San Gines, a charming little chocolateria that introduced us to this genius culinary tradition.  Really.  It’s quite delightful.  You should try it.  Order a plate, and behold with wonder the five churros and molten cup of chocolate goodness.  The churros themselves are just simple churros, fried sticks of dough that melt in your mouth.  They’re a little bit thinner than the churros you get in the States, and they don’t have cinnamon sugar on the outside, but they’re fresh and hot, straight from the fryer and onto your plate.  Torn into pieces, they make the perfect carrier for the amazing chocolate in the mug in front of you.  It’s a little bit thinner than straight up melted chocolate, but thick enough to coat the churros with an appetizing layer of bittersweet brown.  I say bittersweet, but the flavor is more than just that word can say.  It isn’t really sweet at all, but neither is it really very bitter.  It’s smooth and creamy, dark and compelling.  It’s almost sad when you finish the churros and still have most of the chocolate left in the mug, but then you remember the spoon they gave you.  Oh yes.  The spoon.  It’s so wonderful.  Perfect spoonfuls of chocolate.  Such strong flavor, intense yet not overpowering.  Of course, then you have to try sipping it.  It’s so thick that you really feel like your drinking chocolate.  Ok, maybe that’s a little too much – back to the more genteel pace of the spoon.  Oh, it’s delightful. 

Perhaps some of my enjoyment of chocolate con churros stemmed from the fact that it was about 2 in the morning, but I still think I could enjoy it intensely at any time of day.  It’s just that good.  And remember, good food is most definitely one of my staples for having a good time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

First impressions of a park


I spent this morning wandering around the Parque del Buen Retiro, which is just a couple of blocks away from the apartment I’m living in while here in Madrid.  Taking nothing with me but my keys, my phone, and a good book, I strolled through some of the many shady lanes, keeping mainly to the perimeter so that I could see as much as possible of this little paradise in the middle of the big city.  It kind of reminds me of a giant salad – the mixed greens of grass and various trees and shrubs peppered with convenient benches, salted with statues, dressed with splashing fountains, liberally sprinkled with dogs, and tossed with all kinds of people – old people, young people, children laughing, children crying, people running, people strolling, people biking, people rollerblading, people making out, people sun bathing, people sitting, people reading.  This seems to be where the entire city comes to get some exercise or hang out.  And I don’t blame them; it’s absolutely gorgeous.

One of my favorite spots that I came across today was more out of the way, in a walled section called Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez, an area that in itself could be called a large garden, but yet only forms a small part of the Retiro as a whole.  It has a gorgeous avenue of flowers and fountains surrounded by columns graced by winding vines and paths that lead off into quiet nooks, some of which reveal strutting peacocks, and all of which center around calming waterfalls or fountains.  There was one little corner in particular that I fell in love with; it felt almost as though I was in a sanctuary, a sacred and holy place.  Imagine the trees towering up all around against the backdrop of a soft blue sky touched with wisps of delicate cloud.  A veritable forest of flowering cannas is held at bay by a short hedge of boxwood.  In the back corners are twin waterfalls peeking demurely out from the hedges as they leisurely spill over into little pools covered with water lilies.  Go out a little farther into the checkerboard-paved space, and there is a large circular pond with water plants sprouting up around a whimsical fountain.  There are two shady benches on either side of the entrance to this sanctuary, the perfect place to sit and contemplate the beauty of the sky, the water, and the plants all around.  The dancing water in the two back ponds sends up entrancing reflections of light on the cannas bending over them, and closer inspection reveals morning glory twining its way through the giant stalks of cannas, adding their own sparkling white to the orange of the cannas flowers.  I sat on one of those benches for at least half an hour, thinking, observing, and communing with God in the peaceful morning light, my mind sometimes simply stopping and listening to the plash of the fountain as it playfully spouted water. 

A little bit further on in my stroll through the Retiro, I came across a concert of classical music!  La Banda Orqesta Municipal was playing in a gazebo, surrounded by crowds of people sitting in wooden folding chairs or on the grass underneath the shady trees.  The women all had their abánicos out, fanning themselves gently with these hand-held fans, as the day got warmer.  It was the perfect spot to sit and people watch and read a book…and the music was good too of course :) It was also entertaining to watch all the dogs that were attending the concert with their owners.  My attention was most often drawn to one particularly fuzzy little Eewok who was constantly straining to the very end of his leash, trying to move the anchor that was his mistress, who wasn’t going anywhere as she sat contentedly in a folding chair and listened to the music.  I think if I had been her, I would have been the same, occasionally bringing my dog back from the end of his leash so that he wouldn’t bother other people, but for the most part just sitting and enjoying the lovely music, the lovely day, and the lovely atmosphere that is El Retiro.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

This town really, truly never sleeps


It’s 8 o’clock on Thursday evening.  Marisol are sitting in the kitchen eating dinner – gazpacho with toast followed by tortilla española and two slices of cold melon.  It’s delicious.  Past the flavor of garlic, the gazpacho tastes like cucumber, onion, and of course tomato.  It feels almost strange to eat cold soup, but it’s really good sopped up with the toast.  The tortilla española is like an omelet, with potato, bell pepper, onion, and tuna.  I especially like the little bursts of saltiness that come in the form of granules of sea salt.  I’m really quite full now, but the melon is so refreshing and delicious that I can’t leave it behind.  However, being quite full, we convince our host mother, Maria, that we can’t eat half of the tortilla that she gave us, so now she puts it in the fridge for us to eat tomorrow.

It’s 10 o’clock, and I’m watching tv with Maria.  I can understand just enough to get the general gist of the show, but they speak so fast that it’s a little difficult to get the details.

It’s 12 o’clock, and Marisol and I are almost ready to head out for a night on the town.  She’s been in contact with some other girls with our program, and we’re all meeting up to go to a club near the Puerta del Sol called Joy.  Apparently you have to dress up to fit in with the night crowd, so I’ve put on the new dress I bought in Valencia and done my hair in a style that I hope looks more or less nice.  A touch of makeup, and I’m ready.  We say goodnight to Maria, and we’re out the door by 12:30.  The restaurants in our neighborhood are closing shop as we walk to the metro station nearby, and it seems like most of the people have gone home, as most people with would should at this hour on a Thursday evening.  As we get closer to the Puerta del Sol though, the metro slowly gathers passengers, most of whom, by the looks of them, are headed out for the same reason we are.  We alight and mount the stairs that lead back up to the world, coming out in a square (the Puerta del Sol at last) filled with people.  We manage to get in touch with the rest of our group, everyone excited for their first night out in Madrid. 

I’m not exactly sure how, but we get into the club free, maybe because of a friend that one of the girls has already made….however that may be, it’s nice not to have to pay.  As we go inside, the ceiling of the entry hall is covered in small lights, like stars transplanted from the heavens.  Music flows around us, finally engulfing us when we step into the main room.  There are large screens showing a montage of music videos that actually have nothing to do with the music that’s being played, the bar is packed, and the huge disco ball hanging from the ceiling is adding its particular brilliance to the effects of the colored spotlights and the cigarette smoke wafting through the air.  The girls find out it’s going to be my birthday in a couple of days and buy me a soda after I turn down something a little harder.  In general I don’t really drink soda, but I feel more like part of the group holding my own glass.  We make our way into the crowd on the dance floor, forming our own little group and edging out any guys who might try to creep in on us.  It’s fun being out there, even though this club seems to be filled with foreigners instead of Spaniards and there’s plenty of dirty dancing to go around.  We get a little hot, so it’s up to the balcony, from which we watch the mob beneath us for a little while before going back to join them.

It’s close to 4 am on Friday morning, and the rest of the girls are tired of this club.  We head out, an indecisive gaggle, then make our way to a nearby bar that’s still open.  It sports shamrocks above the door, in my mind somewhat comically at odds with the Spanish bouncer who checks our IDs.  It’s just as loud in here as it was at Joy, but it’s quieter in the restaurant section downstairs, through which we pass as we make our way to the bathroom.  We hang out upstairs for a while, then leave to stop the inopportune conversation of a couple of Spanish men who want to tell one of the girls all about his favorite American TV show.

It’s about 5 o’clock, and we find ourselves back in the Puerta del Sol, joining the many other random groups of people waiting for the metro to open back up at 6.  We sit down by one of the fountains and chat as amazingly, none of us are tired.  I think it must be all the energy one feels in a club, plus the excitement of being out and about in a new city.  The two girls on my left soon find themselves drawn into conversation with two friendly Irish guys.  Then two Spanish guys sit down next to the girl on my right and begin to talk with the two of us.  Well, I mostly just listen, practicing my auditory understanding, although I add my input when they ask me a direct question.  All of a sudden, a fight breaks out nearby, and when everyone realizes that it’s four against one, a mob rushes over to break it up and keep the lone fighter from getting anymore seriously injured than he already has.  The police are there in a jiffy, but the culprits have walked off already.  One of our Spanish friends had joined the rush of salvation, and he comes back muttering about stupid foreigners getting drunk and then picking fights with other stupid drunks.   After recovering from the shock of seeing such violence, our conversation resumes, and we chat about everything from music preferences (the guys getting amusingly worked up when they find out we aren’t familiar with the music of some famous American musicians) to what we study in school.  They are a lot of fun to talk with, making jokes and teasing us and each other, and it’s 6 almost before we know it.  So now it’s goodbye, and our group splits up as we head off on the metro for home.  The metro fills with people, both late night revelers like us heading home and the early morning crowd heading off to start their days, and I realize that this town really, truly never sleeps.  By this point, I really have to use the restroom, so I’m glad when we reach the apartment. 

Now it’s almost 7 and time to fall into bed.  I guess I’ll take a shower when I wake up.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Let the battle begin


I’ve only been on campus for two days, but it’s official; I have found my arch nemesis.  “You?  An arch nemesis?” you might ask.  But it’s true, I have been sucked into battle, into the embroilment of contention, and I don’t think there’s any way out of it.  “But who could this enemy be?”  It’s a formidable one, this opponent of mine, one you would never even think would strike out in such a manner – the bathrooms.  Yes, I kid you not, the bathrooms.

Each stall in the bathrooms on campus is a completely enclosed stall, like a little closet, or the mouth of a monster.  Because they are enclosed, they each need their own light, and in order to conserve energy, each light is outfitted with a motion sensor.  These motion sensors have little red lights on them that turn on when the light goes off, similar to the glowing red eye of some terrifying creature in the dark.  How did I discover this chilling resemblance to the stuff of nightmares?  Well I’m telling you, the bathrooms have declared war.  In fact, there is one particular stall in one particular bathroom that seems to have it out for me, and I made the mistake of using it twice.  The first time, as the door squealed shut behind me like an underhand growl of warning and the lock snapped into place like jaws determined to hold me fast, I felt something in the air that seemed to tell me I was in for trouble.  (Or perhaps it was just the semi stale odor of a public restroom…)  I didn’t realize though the force that I was up against, so of course I paid no head to the warning growl or the voracious snap of the lock.  I innocently began to make use of the facilities, when all of a sudden, the light turned off.  Annoyed, I waved my hand in front of the sensor, and the light turned back on.  But the bathroom wasn’t going to give up so easily.  The light turned back off.  I realized it was actually turning on and off by itself at intervals the perfect length to reveal to me the eye staring at me from the sensor.  It was like the slow, steady blink of a monster – the light would turn off, and the beady red eye would open; the light would turn on, and the eye would close.  I stared at it, mesmerized, like an innocent bird caught in the gaze of the snake.  But I shook off the fear that was beginning to build, took charge of the situation, flushed, and marched out of that stall.  Unfortunately, I think this rather enraged the beast.  I went back to the same stall some time later, forgetting the vendetta it seemed to have against me, and the same thing happened.  Only this time, I realized right away what was going on.  The malicious squeal of the door, the hungry snap of the lock, the slow and reptilian blink of the read beady eye.  I tried to do the same as I had before and take control of the situation, but it was determined to win this time.  It wouldn’t flush.  It made a sniveling show of pretence, swirling some water around the bowl, but it refused to swallow.  I, of course, couldn’t let a bathroom win (although it is indeed a worthy opponent), so I summoned all my courage and demanded that the monster give in.  I pushed down the button with all the force I had in my thumb, demanding with all my strength, until at last the creature was beaten.  It relented, overcome for the moment by my prowess.  However, as I left the stall, the lock seemed to be a little bit more sticky and the door seemed to protest a little more loudly, as though the stall was unwilling to give up the fight.  At the moment, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll give that stall another chance for revenge.  However, if the bathrooms continue to keep this up, I don’t know how long I’ll last.  A person can only win so many battles, you know?